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Tanya Olsen got her first hena crown in November. Her current tattoo is her third and she hopes it will be her last. (Tanya Olsen)

Tanya Olsen couldn't hide in a crowd. Not that she'd want to. The feisty Cambridge woman says it takes too much energy to conceal what breast cancer is doing to her body. 

Olsen felt the first lump in September while in the shower. She showed it to her doctor, he sent her to the specialist, and within a month she had her diagnosis: breast cancer, stage three.

"So, naturally," she says, "one of the things that rolls through your head is, 'oh my god, my hair's going to fall out. Oh my god, I need a wig." 

However, before she went wig shopping, Olsen knew she didn't want one. She ripped off the first hair piece just seconds after trying it on. She says covering her head felt wrong.

Rather than watch her hair fall out in chunks, Olsen says it was easier to shave it all off at once.

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Cambridge resident Tanya Olsen was diagnosed in September with third stage breast cancer. Rather than wear a wig, she is covering her bald head with an ornate hena tattoo. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

She wore her shaved head to her 40th birthday party. After that, she asked a henna tattoo artist to cover the empty space with ink.

Olsen says the henna she has on today is her third crown and she hopes it will be her last. She has finished her last round of chemotherapy and says her hair is growing back.

Most cancer patients isolate themselves

According to the Canadian Cancer Society, two out of every five Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. Despite that, many people treat cancer as a private struggle.

"A lot of people simply withdraw," says Gerard Seguin, executive director of HopeSpring Cancer Support Centre in Kitchener.

"We have people who show up and say, 'my wife was diagnosed with cancer and she won't talk to me.'" 

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Tanya Olsen says she feels safe and in control while climbing. She visited the rock gym twice a week throughout her cancer treatments. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

When she was diagnosed, Olsen says the temptation to retreat was strong. She thinks many people chose to hide because they think that's what they're supposed to do.

What they don't realize, she says, is that the energy they spend trying to hide the cancer could be better used in fighting the disease. 

Tattoo replaces painful memories with good ones

Olsen hopes her fight will be over soon.

Later this month, she'll have both her breasts removed in an attempt to stop the cancer from spreading. The surgery will leave behind two rippling scars on her chest.

Olsen doesn't want to see those scars, but she doesn't want to hide them either. Her solution is to cover the marks with a permanent tattoo that will stretch across her torso, from her left hip to her right shoulder.

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Guelph artist Mac Young is designing a chest tattoo to cover Tanya Olsen's scars. (Melanie Ferrier/CBC)

Guelph artist Mac Young designed the tattoo. In his ten years inking skin, Young says he's covered numerous scars.

"A lot of times they're self inflicted scars," he says. "They want to cover it up so that they don't constantly remind themselves of that dark time in their life."

Young says Olsen's tattoo has a more positive purpose. The tree he'll be drawing matches the description of a tree Olsen saw while rock climbing in Kentucky.

"If it's something I have to look at day after day...then I want it to be a good memory," Olsen says.  

Cancer isn't a choice, but she says you can choose how you'll remember it.